Nick Cave & Warren Ellis @ Edinburgh Playhouse, 20 Sep

The sonic and physical embodiment of the sacred and the profane, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are almost impossibly impressive

Live Review by Lewis Wade | 22 Sep 2021
  • Nick Cave

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis are a perfect pair. Ellis, the cosmic jester and hippy-savant, brings a lot of levity with his nonchalance and tiny seat, beautifully complementing the grandiose, emotional weight of Cave. February's Carnage, their only release as a duo, was a reinvention of the Cave sound after the Bad Seeds' dark, brilliant trilogy. It felt spontaneous and energetic in a way that grief simply doesn't allow for, something apparent in the way tonight's show refuses to stand still. As the principal songwriting partners, it can fairly be seen as a stripped-back, reimagined version of a Bad Seeds show.

Starting with a trio of songs from Ghosteen, Cave is still using his art to help process the tragic death of his son, and to consistently devastating effect (see also: I Need You). But the relatively intimate setting brings the sonic textures out much more crisply than you get from the arenas and festivals that Cave typically plays. Each piano note reverberates perfectly; the three back-up singers bring Leonard Cohen comparisons to the fore, supporting Cave's lamentations and exhortations; each element swept up on Ellis's buffeting synth tones. Johnny Hostile provides multi-instrumental support throughout, with drums, keys, bass and more. The lack of guitar is the most glaring omission from a typical Cave show, while Ellis brings in beautifully elegiac violin for a few songs.

Almost the entirety of both Carnage and Ghosteen are played tonight, with just a sprinkling of older songs (Henry Lee utilising Wendi Rose's powerful voice in a very different way to the original's PJ Harvey, God is in the House, and a typically gorgeous Into My Arms). Cave brings poignancy to a surprisingly faithful cover of T. Rex's Cosmic Dancer (minus the guitar solo at the end), which allows Ellis some violin vamping, but also gives a breather after I Need You – a predictably lump-in-the-throat song that dissolves into Cave repeatedly whispering 'just breathe'.

Despite the ornate surroundings and heavy subject matter, Cave is in fine fettle, bantering with the near-constant (good natured) hecklers like he was playing in the back of a pub, knocking down mic stands and falling to his knees. One guy who repeatedly asks for Jubilee Street is humoured with a few chords, before being made the ostensible subject of main set closer, Balcony Man.

Hollywood opens the first of two encores, its mid-point breakdown the closest the evening gets to avant-psychedelic, but Ellis and Cave's theatrical gestures fit the moment well, and the power of the wild atonality hints at a Swans-like intensity before we return to the haunted cabaret that is most of the performance. Everyone is on their feet well before Cave's wildly self-evident line in final song Ghosteen Speaks: 'I think my friends have gathered here for me'. At more than two hours, with not a hint of filler, friends will be gathering for a long time to come.